Good Looks No Guarantee of Good Sales

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Retailers who think the secret to great sales figures is all in the hiring of very attractive female staff could find themselves very much mistaken. According to the latest research from the University of South Australia the power of “gorgeous girls” at the counter has some very clear limits. UniSA PhD researcher, Bianca Price, 27, has found that female customers were less likely to purchase a product if they believed that a female staff member was more attractive than them.

Inspired by her own negative experiences in the retail environment, Price undertook a study examining the purchase intentions of women aged 18 to 26 when confronted with an attractive or unattractive retail staff member. Regardless of whether or not the product was related to appearance (for example, a mobile phone compared to mascara) if the female customer perceived the staff member to be better looking than her, she was less likely to purchase the product.

According to Price, these results are reflective of social comparison theory, which suggests that people compare themselves with others to get feedback about their appearance. She says upward social comparison, where individuals compare themselves with people who they believe are socially superior, can create anxiety, lower confidence and create feelings of inadequacy.

“In certain contexts, upward social comparison may result in higher levels of avoidant behaviours. When translated into the retail environment, avoidance means reduced purchases and ultimately, reduced profits,” says Price. Price believes that the increased focus on appearance and body image in young women helps to explain the results.

“Women, especially younger women, consider their appearance to be their CV,” she says. “It’s what can determine the number of friends they have, their luck in finding a relationship and their success in their career,” she says. “Women are biologically competitive – if they consider that a female is a direct social threat, it may affect their behaviour in that context.

“Retailers often think that beautiful is better. In the same way they use a celebrity to endorse a product; they hire a beautiful girl thinking that it reflects the brand and that other women will want to be like her. It doesn’t always work like that – women may not consider celebrities a direct social threat, but they might consider the girl at their local shopping centre to be one.”

Price says that hiring only young, beautiful girls may limit your customer base and alienate your target audience, particularly when the majority of stores are targeted towards young women. “This part of my research is showing quite clearly that for a strong section of the customer market – young women – beautiful is not always better and may not translate into higher sales – indeed quite the opposite may occur.”

The lesson for retailers, Price says, is to diversify your staff as much as possible and consider the effect that your staff’s appearance may have on your consumers. “Retailers need to understand that beauty can affect their bottom line. The solution lies in hiring women of all shapes and sizes, someone for each of your potential customers to relate to,” she says. Looking forward, Price is examining how ‘types’ of beauty may influence customers attitudes and purchase intentions, focussing on the role of the sexualised appearance of female staff, as well as looking at whether the same effects exist with male consumers in a retail environment.

Study information: Dr Duncan Murray (Supervisor) and Bianca Price, a PhD scholar, both from the School of Management, have had their paper entitled, ‘Match-up revisited: The effect of staff attractiveness on purchase intentions in younger adult females: Social comparative and product relevance effects’, published in the Journal of International Business and Economics, vol. 9, no. 2, pp55-76.
Do you find this study to be true? Does the attractiveness of the sales staff affect whether you decide to purchase something?
Listen to a radio interview with Bianca Price on this research.

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18 Comments

  • I think that's totally true- I'd be way more inclined to purchase from a store that hired a range of ethnicities and sizes. They are more relateable.

  • I'm definitely more likely to approach a store or a cosmetic counter if I see a diverse range of people working there. I think the "attractiveness" factor affects me more at the cosmetic counter, though.

  • Interesting. I've never given it much thought, but I do find the overly made-up, very young girls at cosmetics counters annoying, if nothing else!

  • Well, I'm not in the same age group but personally, I would be more interested in buying from someone I thought was really appealing as I'd want to check them out more closely to see what was going on with makeup, shampoo etc. I was served in a lingerie store recently by a young woman who looked like she had walked out of Vogue. She was exotic and very tall. I commented on her height as I'm tall as well and I really enjoyed listening to her and admired her efforts to look good. She was half Japanese and half Persian, a university student on a summer job. In any event, I ended up buying a little more than the single pair of tights that I'd gone in for because I know they work on commission. So this theory wouldn't work with me at all. I got chatting to her because I wanted to compliment her on her appearance and the way she carried herself. This has less to do with thinking attractive people are better than with sharing a bit of "intelligence" on mascara, clothes, etc.

  • I don't think of myself as prejudiced against young beauties (having been one myself at some point) but if I'm buying clothing and need an opinion, I'm going to pay more attention if the clerk is about my age and about my size. I feel younger women are too influenced by trends to impartially judge what truly looks good. Looking at photos of myself at that age, I know it was true of me (and my ripped jeans and big hair and blue mascara.)

  • This is very interesting!
    I guess I tend to run away from stores that either have very young or only older staff.
    I always get the feeling that they will try to sell me what they would like for themselves instead of what would be good for me.
    But still my favourite one is to have a particular salesperson in a store with whom I always buy things.The relationship with the client is what gets the sale with me.

  • I am somewhat oblivious to what the sales staff looks like, that is as long as it falls within some general boundaries. I care a lot more about how they talk to me, how they listen, what they bring me. BTW, I have an award for you today Imogen, the Good Fashion Read award:).

  • Wow – interesting study. On a conscious level, I'm more likely to feel comfortable and buy in a store where the staff appear friendly and approachable. But who's to say what 'approachable' really looks like?
    On the sub-conscious level, who knows what my brain is telling me?!

  • Luinae – thanks for coming by and commenting.

    Ms M – interestingly the study covered all aspects of retail, not just traditional areas such as cosmetics and fashion.

    Tiffany – I have to say I don't let it bother me – but maybe I just think I'm gorgeous!

    Rosina – maybe this is a cultural difference? Australians are not known for giving strangers compliments.

    rb – I absolutely see your point.

    Nurmisur – interesting that you will make choices of where you'll shop based on staff (not goods in shop so much).

    LPC – thanks for the award!

    Struggler – mm, understanding your unconscious – now that's a challenge!

  • It's definitely an interesting study anyway but it fails to take into account the little things like attitude and atmosphere in shops as well. There are some makeup counters that I wouldn't approach on the basis that I don't want to look like the girls working on the counter because it's not my preferred style of makeup. The last time I got my makeup done was at an Urban Decay counter where the lady was wearing makeup but it looked natural. It's not because the girls on the MAC counter are more beautiful than I am, it's because I don't want to be made feel like I have to wear lots of makeup.

    The other thing that irks me about certain shops is the atmosphere in there- lots of beautiful staff in an attempt to create an atmosphere that you are not welcome in there unless you are a size 0 and 5'7". It's not the presence of beautiful women, it's the atmosphere of elitism. I have had numerous beautiful, trendy, stylish, attractive women help me in other clothes shops without this atmosphere.

  • I think the study sounds a little too black and white. I might be more intimidated by overly made up, unsmiling women on cosmetic counters but I'm less inclined to shop where I am not welcomed. Po-faced assistants do nothing for me, but a smiling, engaging personality is a winner. I recently had a make-up lesson from a 'girl' young enough to be my daughter (sad, but true) but she was very knowledgeable and had a fun personality. She was gorgeous too, but didn't put me off at all.

  • I don't shop at Victoria's Secret for the simple reason that I fear I must have to look like that in order to fit into their clothes!

  • Imogen, that's very interesting about Australians not passing out compliments. I'm a Brit ex-pat and it's not done there either. Here in Canada, I find it hard to walk through, say Whole Foods, and not have someone, male or female, say something complimentary. I always tell people if I think they look good, not in a patronizing way, but perhaps a compliment on the way two colours go together, or "Wow, I love your earrngs!" You're right. It must be a cultural thing. I never thought of it that way.

  • That is very interesting! One lesson I learned long ago is that the reason 'perfect looking models' are used to endorse products is that people then actually look at the product instead of judging and assessing the model in the picture. Although I guess if we weren't used to looking at perfection in magazines we wouldn't judge it! Great post Imogen!

  • Hmm.. Today I´m late with my comment. To answer your question, I´d say, that I appreciate that the place where I shop is attractive and in order. I expect the same from the staff. I don´t judge a person by her/his looks. I think that it could be wise to have SA´s of different ages working together, this naturally depends on what kind of stores we are talking about.

  • Fascinating (I love social psychology). I work for some large corporations where you can see the 'beauty factor'- the sales and marketing grups are composed of young very good looking women (and a few men.) You have to wonder about a self-selection effect: many good looking people choose occupations that reward their looks.

    I had a friend who sold menswear at a super high end shop and said that since many men shop with their wives, the saleswomen could not look too sexy and glamorous, they had to be preppy- safer!

  • I love this study, and can totally relate to the findings. I definitely find myself avoiding certain stores, such as Witchery or Cue, which firstly only stock to a Size 14 (I am a 5 foot 10 and a size 14/16 so its pretty hit and miss at the best of times) and secondly only employs very slim, attractive and young sales assistants. I find the salespeople in such stores do have a attitude of elitism. And no I'm not imagining it because never once have I been offered a hello or any assistance what so ever in these stores. I feel like the salespeple are saying 'nope, you won't fit anything we sell, and you are over 30, so I'm not going to bother with you. I do feel much more comfortable in stores where their sales staff present a more realistic body image, looks and age distribution, and where I know I can find clothing to suit a range of body shapes and sizes.

  • I wonder what part friendliness plays. I despise shopping in places where the sales staff is snooty/snobby, whether those on staff are beautiful or plain. A salesperson who is genuinely warm, helpful and solicitous, however, creates a very pleasant atmosphere in which to shop – whether he or she is beautiful or plain.

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